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    South Asia
     Mar 1, 2012


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The US fans Afghanistan flames
By Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse

Is it all over but the (anti-American) shouting - and the killing? Are the exits finally coming into view?

Sometimes, in a moment, the fog lifts, the clouds shift, and you can finally see the landscape ahead with startling clarity. In Afghanistan, Washington may be reaching that moment in a state of panic, horror, and confusion. Even as an anxious US commander withdrew American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) advisers from Afghan ministries around Kabul last weekend - approximately 300, military spokesman James Williams tells TomDispatch - the ability of American soldiers to remain on giant fortified bases eating pizza and fried chicken into the distant future is not in doubt.

No set of Taliban guerrillas, suicide bombers, or armed Afghan

 

"allies" turning their guns on their American "brothers" can alter that - not as long as Washington is ready to bring the necessary supplies into semi-blockaded Afghanistan at staggering cost. But sometimes that's the least of the matter, not the essence of it. So if you're in a mood to mark your calendars, late February 2012 may be the moment when the end game for America's second Afghan War, launched in October 2001, was initially glimpsed.

Amid the reportage about the recent explosion of Afghan anger over the torching of Korans in a burn pit at Bagram Air Base, there was a tiny news item that caught the spirit of the moment. As anti-American protests (and the deaths of protestors) mounted across Afghanistan, the German military made a sudden decision to immediately abandon a 50-man outpost in the north of the country.

True, they had planned to leave it a few weeks later, but consider the move a tiny sign of the increasing itchiness of Washington's NATO allies. The French have shown a similar inclination to leave town since, earlier this year, four of their troops were blown away (and 16 wounded) by an Afghan army soldier, as three others had been shot down several weeks before by another Afghan in uniform. Both the French and the Germans have also withdrawn their civilian advisors from Afghan government institutions in the wake of the latest unrest.

Now, it's clear enough: the Europeans are ready to go. And that shouldn't be surprising. After all, we're talking about NATO, whose soldiers found themselves in distant Afghanistan in the first place only because, since World War II, with the singular exception of French President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, European leaders have had a terrible time saying "no" to Washington. They still can't quite do so, but in these last months it's clear which way their feet are pointed.

Which makes sense. You would have to be blind not to notice that the American effort in Afghanistan is heading into the tank.

The surprising thing is only that the Obama administration, which recently began to show a certain itchiness of its own - speeding up withdrawal dates and lowering the number of forces left behind - remains remarkably mired in its growing Afghan disaster. Besieged by demonstrators there, and at home by Republican presidential hopefuls making hay out of a situation from hell, its room to maneuver in an unraveling, increasingly chaotic situation seems to grow more limited by the day.

Sensitivity training
The Afghan War shouldn't be the world's most complicated subject to deal with. After all, the message is clear enough. Eleven years in, if your forces are still burning Korans in a deeply religious Muslim country, it's way too late and you should go.

Instead, the US command in Kabul and the administration back home have proceeded to tie themselves in a series of bizarre knots, issuing apologies, orders, and threats to no particular purpose as events escalated. Soon after the news of the Koran burning broke, for instance, General John R Allen, the US war commander in Afghanistan, issued orders that couldn't have been grimmer (or more feeble) under the circumstances. Only a decade late, he directed that all US military personnel in the country undergo 10 days of sensitivity "training in the proper handling of religious materials".

Sensitivity, in case you hadn't noticed at this late date, has not been an American strong suit there. In the headlines in the last year, for instance, were revelations about the 12-soldier "kill team" that "hunted" Afghan civilians "for sport," murdered them, and posed for demeaning photos with their corpses. There were the four wisecracking US Marines who videotaped themselves urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans - whether civilians or Taliban guerrillas is unknown - with commentary ("Have a good day, buddy… Golden - like a shower"). There was also that sniper unit proudly sporting a Nazi SS banner in another photographed incident and the US combat outpost named "Aryan." And not to leave out the allies, there were the British soldiers who were filmed "abusing" children.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Afghans have often experienced the American and NATO occupation of these last years. To take but one example that recently caused outrage, there were the eight shepherd boys, aged six to 18, slaughtered in a NATO air strike in Kapisa Province in northern Afghanistan (with the usual apology and forthcoming "investigation," as well as claims, denied by Afghans who also investigated, that the boys were armed).

More generally, there are the hated night raids launched by special operations forces that break into Afghan homes, cross cultural boundaries of every sort, and sometimes leave death in their wake. Like errant American and NATO air operations, which have been commonplace in these war years, they are reportedly deeply despised by most Afghans.

All of these, in turn, have been protested again and again by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He has regularly demanded that the US military cease them (or bring them under Afghan control). Being the president of Afghanistan, however, he has limited leverage and so American officials have paid little attention to his complaints or his sense of what Afghans were willing to take.

The results are now available for all to see in an explosion of anger spreading across the country. How far this can escalate and how long it can last no one knows. But recent experience indicates that, once a population heads for the streets, anything can happen. All of this could, of course, peter out, but with more than 30 protesters already dead, it could also take on a look reminiscent of the escalating civil war in Syria - including, as has already happened on a small scale in the past, whole units of Afghan security forces defecting to the Taliban.

Unfolding events have visibly overwhelmed and even intimidated the Americans in charge. However, as religious as the country may be and holy as the Koran may be considered, what's happened cannot be fully explained by the book burning. It is, in truth, an explosion a decade in coming.

Precursors and omens
After the grim years of Taliban rule, when the Americans arrived in Kabul in November 2001, liberation was in the air. More than 10 years later, the mood is clearly utterly transformed and, for the first time, there are reports of "Taliban songs" being sung at demonstrations in the streets of the capital. Afghanistan is, as the New York Times reported last weekend (using language seldom seen in American newspapers) "a religious country fed up with foreigners"; or as Laura King of the Los Angeles Times put it, there is now "a visceral distaste for Western behavior and values" among significant numbers of Afghans.

Years of pent up frustration, despair, loathing, and desperation are erupting in the present protests. That this was long on its way can't be doubted.

Among the more shocking events in the wake of the Koran burnings was the discovery in a room in the heavily guarded Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul of the bodies of an American lieutenant colonel and major, each evidently executed with a shot in the back of the head while at work. The killer, who worked in the ministry, was evidently angered by the Koran burnings and possibly by the way the two Americans mocked Afghan protesters and the Koran itself. He escaped. The Taliban (as in all such incidents) quickly took responsibility, though it may not have been involved at all.

What clearly rattled the American command, however, and led them to withdraw hundreds of advisors from Afghan ministries around Kabul was that the two dead officers were "inside a secure room" that bars most Afghans. It was in the ministry's command and control complex. (By the way, if you want to grasp some of the problems of the last decade just consider that the Afghan Interior Ministry includes an area open to foreigners, but not to most Afghans who work there.)

As the New York Times put it, the withdrawal of the advisors was "a clear sign of concern that the fury had reached deeply into even the Afghan security forces and ministries working most closely with the coalition." Those two dead Americans were among four killed in these last days of chaos by Afghan "allies." Meanwhile, the Taliban urged Afghan police and army troops, some of whom evidently need no urging, to attack US military bases and American or NATO forces.

Two other US troops died outside a small American base in Nangarhar Province near the Pakistani border in the midst of an Afghan demonstration in which two protestors were also killed. An Afghan soldier gunned the Americans down and then evidently escaped into the crowd of demonstrators. Such deaths, in a recent Washington Post piece, were termed "fratricide," though that perhaps misconstrues the feelings of many Afghans, who over these last years have come to see the Americans as occupiers and possibly despoilers, but not as brothers.

Historically unprecedented in the modern era is the way, in the years leading up to this moment, Afghans in police and army uniforms have repeatedly turned their weapons on American or NATO troops training, working with, or patrolling with them. Barely more than a week ago, for instance, an Afghan policeman killed the first Albanian soldier to die in the war. Earlier in the year, there were those seven dead French troops. At least 36 US and NATO troops have died in this fashion in the past year. Since 2007, there have been at least 47 such attacks. These have been regularly dismissed as "isolated incidents" of minimal significance by US and NATO officials and, unbelievably enough, are still being publicly treated that way.

Yet not in Iraq, nor during the Vietnam War, nor the Korean conflict, nor even during the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the twentieth century were there similar examples of what once would have been called "native troops" turning on those training, paying for, and employing them. You would perhaps have to go back to the Sepoy Rebellion, a revolt by Indian troops against their British officers in 1857, for anything comparable.

In April 2011, in the most devastating of these incidents, an Afghan air force colonel murdered nine US trainers in a heavily guarded area of Kabul International Airport. He was reportedly angry at Americans generally and evidently not connected to the Taliban. And consider this an omen of things to come: his funeral in Kabul was openly attended by 1,500 mourners. 

Continued 1 2  


Kabul on razor's edge (Feb 27, '12)

In search of an elusive endgame
(Feb 27, '12)


1.
Syriana redux: The Middle East fragments

2. Obama, the Jewish lobby and the bomb

3. 'Iran' as a weapon of subordination

4. Conjuring the ghost of Richelieu

5. US drones circle over the Philippines

6. Bangladesh's exporters lose fastest boat to China

7. Young America and China's dream

8. Kabul on razor's edge

9. Six degrees of (Iranian) separation

10. The jaded sage

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 28, 2012)

 
 



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